OHC Learning Center – What are you Saying to the Visually Impaired?

By Ed Worrell

Are you sending a decent message to the blind community?

If you are a web or app developer, a blogger or a YouTuber, if you use Facebook or any messaging app or email, I am here to tell you that you ‘are’ sending a message with everything you create. The question one should ask is, “Am I sending an intentional message?” Those of us who use a screen reader or Braille display get the message literally loud and clear, intentional or not.

According to the best stats I can find on the web, there are approximately 300 million visually impaired and over 50 million people classified as blind in the world. Add them both together and they equal the population of a major world country. For clarification, Visually impaired does not mean that one needs glasses, although one might. The term Visually Impaired, the way it may apply in life, actually refers to a visual state that can range from near-sightedness, to barely detecting light. Many of us have changing eyesight and progress from one condition to another. Using myself as an example, my eye condition is now to a state where I cannot read or write printed material, see a computer or device screen, cannot read any handwriting including my own signature and I am down to barely being able to detect light sources. And I am classified as Visually Impaired because I was not born completely blind. Weird.

Note: I mention the numbers above only to stress the point of how potentially large of a community a message can reach, intentional or otherwise.

So what is this message I am referring to? It is something that all developers know about already, but may not realize that it applies in the way described in this article. If you still have use of your vision there is one thing to keep in mind. The digital world that appears on your screen is just the surface layer. There is an underlying layer of code that makes it all happen. Using a screen reader or Braille display, depending on the individual settings, can read all or part of this underlying structure. In other words, we who use screen readers can discover many things about your creation that never make it to the visual surface. We not only ‘can,’ but we ‘do’ on a daily basis. It is how all screen readers work, we can’t help it. If you produce materials that include additional helpful information in the allowed places of the underlying structure, then that becomes part of your message. If you do not include this information, then the empty and unlabeled areas become part of your message instead.

Regardless of your attention to these information areas, whether you intend to or not, you ‘are’ sending a message with everything you create. What does your message say about you and your materials?

The Button!

Far too many web pages and apps have unlabeled buttons, as well as other elements. Again, I know nothing about labeling elements in the code of an application. I do know that those areas exist in the code. I also know that having an app tell you to click the Continue button at the bottom does no good when what you find down there is, “Button, button, button.” Okay, I’m supposed to click something down here. Oops, I just signed up for something. A driver in a car rally. Hmm. I hope I can find their Cancel button. πŸ™‚

The Unknown Element

My screen reader will tell me which type of element it is currently sitting on, button, link, image, table, etc. On web pages it will also read any alt text or item labels.

All too often I will be reading along on a web page that says, “Check out the offer and click the link below to receive a chance to win a bazillion dollars!” Then all I can find is something like, “1335836gbfig_27x.png, image, link.” Then “Button, link.” Then “Link, link.” If that wasn’t clear on which item you were supposed to click, well, it wasn’t to me either. If I click on the incorrect item, I get stuck in some ad or survey. There goes my chance at winning a bazillion bucks. Oh well, back to the daily grind for me.

Off the Top of my Heading

Some of the worst web page issues are when multiple types are combined with navigation modes, like Headings. Especially if they mislabel items with other element names. You press the right arrow key once and end up landing on an object named,

“Group, Button 6, 3.jpg, image, link, heading level 3.” Huh?

A really bad one I found was where everything on the page was set to Heading level 1. Each individual word and web element was set individually . The only way to navigate was one word at a time, and VoiceOver said

“Heading Level 1” after each one. “Hello Heading Level 1, there Heading Level 1, valued Heading Level 1, clientHeading Level 1.”

And that was on a web site devoted to helping the disabled.

It’s Not Just Devs

Sometimes it is the way digital things are used by the public that become inaccessible. Social networks, messaging apps, even email can become inaccessible by the latest fad or feature. Keep in mind, ‘accessible’ includes ease of use. For instance…

The Emoticons are Coming!

Social networks are over-run with emoticons. While I like a little mini picture myself once in a while (Cough!), some people need to use a little discretion. Someone messaged me the other day and said,

“Sup? Smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out,” etc. This went on for about twenty five repeats, then said, “Call me. Arm with flexing bicep, Arm with flexing bicep, Arm with flexing bicep,” with about thirty repeats. With their phone number at the very end.

Hmm, before I dial their number, let me think. What should I call them. πŸ™‚ Emoticons are easy to look past, until you have to listen to them. I love to hear some of them, just not thirty times in a row. And please, put them at the end of the pertinent information, not strewn throughout. (Sigh!).

Grumpy face with smirking scowl, Grumpy face with smirking scowl, Grumpy face with smirking scowl, man yelling at kids on his lawn, man yelling at kids on his lawn, man yelling at kids on his lawn, smiley face.

Please, Be Punctuational

I hate those emails or messages where the person never stops or pauses in the typed text they just keep on going without any punctuation what so ever in one incredibly long sentence that never stops even though it begins to drive you little crazy but you dare not reply because you will simply get another long uninterrupted string of words all mashed together with no apparent break in between without really saying much and taking up a lot of time for no real reason yet they continue on oblivious to their own message just blabbing on and on without discrimination and by the time they are finished you already forgot the first part of what they had said. πŸ™‚

Quick, where’s the mute button! Whew. Right?

Punctuation causes a screen reader to pause for varying amounts of time, depending on the sentence structure. A comma causes a slight pause, without dropping the level of intonation much. A period causes a longer pause and drops the intonation at the end of a sentence. An exclamation point pauses while emphasizing the last few words. A question mark pauses while raising the intonation at the end of the sentence.

The punctuational situation exists for developers as well. I can’t tell you how many RPG games I have tried to play and even though they were text based, the lack of proper punctuation made looking through any stats screen a real chore. examine the line of text below. You may already see the problem.

Health: 50 Power: 25 Agility: 14

You might think that the sentence above is obvious, but the lack of punctuation mixes it up in a misleading way. Because of the lack of periods or commas in the proper places, my screen reader reads it like this…

Health, 50 Power, 25 Agility, 14.

To me, it sounds like Health does not have a score, the Power is 50, the Agility is 25, and there is a 14 hanging out on the end for no apparent reason. With a few periods added, it becomes…

Health, 50. Power, 25. Agility, 14.

Ah, now I get it immediately; Health is 50, Power is 25, and Agility is 14. It even ‘Sounds’ correct. I can and do navigate through stuff like this in single character mode to discover its layout. But I can tell you honestly, nothing draws you out of the mood of a game or app faster than having to stop and dink around with this kind of stuff. Honest.

While nicely designed text can create pictures in your mind, try to refrain from using it to decorate the screen. Text designs are almost as annoying as lacking punctuation. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear “asterisk, asterisk, asterisk,” 87 times in a row, just to realize that there is nothing else on that line. The very next line has 20 asterisks in a row, then four important words you needed, then 20 more asterisks. Okay, that was it for that line. Whew! Now, what was I doing again?

The End of the Rant.

Underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline, etc.

There are many aspects to “accessibility” that are not apparent unless you experience it for yourself. The need for awareness is obvious. The current state of technology is no-ones fault. Regardless of the hopefully humorous and somewhat sarcastic nature of this post, accessible tech has taken many strides forward. I hope my little rant will help give a viewpoint from the trenches and maybe be a little food for thought. If we try and keep an open mind, maybe we can all be a bit more accessible.

Accessibility Reference links

WebAIM: Designing for Screen Reader Compatibility.

Accessibility for Developers – Apple Developer


I would like to invite you to tell us about short comings that you have come across in your travels, and usage of assistive technology. You can sound off below in the comments section or on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

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